Why Reading Sharon Olds Makes You a Better Person

1 August 2018

Emotion as means of expression

Returning to the matter of emotion as the result versus the means of expression, the classical view of emotion holds that emotional response, particularly when generated from a text, involves something of a causal chain in which some stimulus occurs in the text, which is then interpreted, resulting in an emotional response. Jenefer Robinson, for instance, argues that despite the existence of conflicting approaches, most theories of emotion agree that there are a number of ingredients necessary for an emotional response. ‘Most theorists agree’, she writes, ‘that interpretation of a stimulus, physiological arousal, expressive behaviour, action tendencies, and subjective feelings are all involved in emotion.’1 The phrase ‘involved in’ here is ambiguous (are these all necessary conditions for an emotion?), and certainly many theorists reject that some of these (such as appraisal) are required for emotion.2 Nonetheless, this way of conceiving of emotion is that of a timeline; something like a domino theory of emotion, in which a stimulus causes a cognitive act, which triggers an emotion, which then triggers some physiological effects.

This picture (known as the ‘latent variable model’) has more recently been superseded by an ‘emergent variable model’, which posits that ‘emotions do not cause, but rather are caused by their measured indicators.’3 In either case, however, emotions are posited as the result of expression and interpretation – a picture which does not, at least in the case of reading Olds’s poetry, adequately capture the way emotion is functioning. It is not the case that we read these poems, interpret their meaning, generate an emotional response and then experience physiological effects (or any reordering of these). Rather, as the above analyses have made clear, emotionality exists at the level of language, which, upon reading, gives rise to an emotional response as pure subjective feeling (affect). When this affect is tempered with our appraisal of the events/characters, the experience is one of dialectical meta-emotion, where our emotional response as feeling comes into conflict with our meta-emotion as appraisal of the characters/situations represented in the work. There are points at which, as has been shown, the syntax, metre and sonic qualities of the text create a soothing rhythm, even as they recount points of pain and trauma. At such points in the poem we are, in the moment of emotional experience, caught between positive valence and negative appraisal (and there are, as we have also seen, points where the inverse occurs). If it is true, as my argument suggests, that the text’s most poignant (possible) meanings arise at such moments, it follows that what is being expressed is being expressed through emotion, rather than emotion being a domino that is knocked over by expression and interpretation. Emotion, in other words, is the means, not the result, of expression.

* * *

There are two interrelated systems by which we can ground the claim that dialectical meta-emotion as it occurs in Stag’s Leap promotes the experience of dialectical meta-emotion in the real world. The first is via recent research by Barrett regarding constructed emotion and affective realism – the idea that how we feel structures what we see (as opposed to the inverse). The second is via a wealth of research in recent decades on neuroplasticity.

Barrett has recently argued for a view of emotion that rejects what she calls the classical view of emotion (which includes what I above called a domino theory of emotion), according to which emotions are universally generative of shared physiological responses. This view holds that emotions like anger, fear and disgust have distinct effects that can be recognised from within and from without, and have corresponding neurological ‘fingerprints.’ In contrast to this, Barrett argues for a theory of constructed emotion, which construes emotions as constructed meanings that are posited over physiological and neurological responses to external stimuli. This way of conceiving emotion accounts for why it is that the same emotions can result from various bodily responses, which are further subject to both individual and cultural variability. Moreover, it puts the horse back before the cart: physiological changes give rise to emotion, rather than the inverse. Accordingly, being subject to certain environmental influences can create a tendency to interpret and experience certain physiological changes as emotion. As Barrett puts it,

Your genes turn on and off in different contexts, including the genes that shape your brain’s wiring. (Scientists call this phenomenon plasticity.) That means some of your synapses literally come into existence because other people talked to you or treated you in a certain way. In other words, construction extends all the way down to the cellular level. The macro structure of your brain is largely predetermined, but the microwiring is not. As a consequence, past experience helps determine your future experiences and perceptions.4

Bringing this back to Olds’s poetry, insofar as the experience of dialectical meta-emotion is a novel experience (running against the grain of the hardwired relationship between valence and appraisal), the more we create the conditions for such experiences (which is to say, the more we read), the greater the likelihood that when met with similar inputs we will construe and experience the resulting emotion in a dialectical way. The experience affords us new ways of experiencing emotion; in Barrett’s terms, it increases our emotional granularity, such that we have a new meaning framework for interpreting affect. In other words, the next time we experience negative appraisal in real-world situations, the more open we are to the possibility of experiencing positive valence – pleasure – coextensively. In social situations such negative appraisal might mean the judgement of others’ actions, just as (on occasion) we judge the actions of the narrators’ husband in the narrative (and ‘her’, and at times the speaker herself). If that judgement does not coincide with negative valence – subjectively feeling bad – it removes the most significant obstacle to our empathy: it enables feeling positively while thinking negatively about a person (or situation, or event). Indeed, Feldman-Barrett suggests affective realism may be helpful to keep in mind in such situations:

(…) the next time a good friend snaps at you, remember affective realism. Maybe your friend is irritated with you, but perhaps she didn’t sleep well last night, or maybe it’s just lunchtime. The change in her body budget, which she’s experiencing as affect, might not have anything to do with you. (…) Even simple actions like taking a drink become moments of affective realism.5

While I agree entirely with the point, the situation outlined here involves remembering that affective realism affects others rather than employing affective realism to change ourselves, which I suggest is possible through art. Insofar as how we feel is inextricably linked to how we perceive and behave, if we can manufacture tendencies toward particular feeling-behaviour patterns, we can create more space for empathy and thus become more morally attuned. This is not an easy task, of course, but recent research suggests it may be possible through repetition and the strengthening of neural networks.

As the theory of constructed emotion suggests, it is through repetition that we construct our meaning frameworks for emotion, such that the requisite emotions for particular experiences become naturalised. Insofar as we can experience novel emotional responses, such as dialectical meta-emotion, we can deliberately repeat these experiences to promote the neural pathways that associate experiences with specific emotions. This is to make use of the brain’s plasticity, an aspect of human neurology that has only in recent decades begun to be understood. The basic premise of neuroplasticity is that brain functions are not fixed to specific regions, nor are synaptic connections stable. Rather, brain regions can adapt to perform specific functions, and neural pathways can (and necessarily are) created and strengthened through a combination of novel experience and repetition. As neurologist Shad Helmstetter writes in The Power of Neuroplasticity (2013),

Neural pathways are created by repetition, repetition, repetition (…) When your brain gets a new message, it will first do a quick search to see how that message fits with other information that’s already stored there. If it’s a new message, your brain will store it, at least temporarily. Then, if that same message is repeated, your brain will begin to form a new neural pathway.6

Supposing it is true that emotions are constructed through frameworks of meaning that can be altered, and that emotional granularity can be increased via the introduction of novel emotional experience. Supposing further that through repetition these novel emotions can become habituated via the creation and strengthening of neural pathways. If these two points are true, and if Olds’s poetry offers novel ways of experiencing emotion (as dialectical meta-emotion), it follows that this poetry promotes an ability for the reader to experience dialectical meta-emotion in the real world. Insofar as this can enable us to know something negative and yet feel something positive (or, occasionally, vice versa), it is likely to promote our capacity for empathy, patience and emotional nuance. It is likely, in other words, to make us better people.

  1. Robinson, Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art / Jenefer Robinson, 76.
  2. Indeed, all names mentioned thus far in the feeling tradition reject this claim. See Barrett, 5.
  3. Barrett, 13.
  4. Barrett et al., Handbook of Emotions, 34.
  5. Ibid., 75.
  6. Helmstetter, The Power of Neuroplasticity, 60.
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